Drug-resistant STD looms on the health horizon
Here are two words you don’t want to see together: superbug STD.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to get used to it. World Health Organization officials warn that the bacteria that causes the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea – popularly known as “the clap” – is becoming resistant to every antibiotic treatment available, including the cephalosporins that are considered the last defense against the disease.
While no cases of the cephalosporin-resistant gonorrhea – the superbug – have been detected in the United States, it’s just a matter of time. Cases have been reported in Great Britain, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden and Australia, and health officials believe that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Gonorrhea is the second most common STD (after chlamydia), with about 106 million infections annually worldwide, 600,000 in the United States. In Pierce County, 424 cases were reported in 2011 – almost 53 cases per 100,000 of population.
Pierce County’s rate was second only to King County’s (70 per 100,000) and far higher than the state average of 40 per 100,000, according to Washington Department of Health figures.
Given global travel – and human nature – if the superbug STD isn’t already here, it soon will be. That could present a daunting challenge for public health officials. Many of those infected with gonorrhea don’t show symptoms, but they can still spread the disease.
Untreated, gonorrhea can lead to serious, permanent health problems, including chronic pain, infertility, stillbirths and even death in the most extreme cases. Pregnant women can transmit it to their babies, who can incur eye infections at birth leading to blindness. It also increases the risk of contracting or transmitting the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
So what can be done? Gonorrhea has had the reputation of being an easily treated disease, so public health officials need to educate the public about the prospect of incurable gonorrhea and steps people can take to avoid it.
Individuals must be encouraged to practice safe sex; abstinence and using condoms are the most effective preventive measures. If given antibiotics, they must take all the medicine prescribed; failure to completely kill the bacteria is a major contributor to drug resistance.
While the threat of avian flu has been high on the health radar screen, incurable gonorrhea could end up being the sleeper disease of the era. Vigilance and education will be needed to limit the damage.